The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 28, 2011

'I, Robot.' You what?

So I'm doing an after-dinner talk about robots and AI in SF for SICSA's PhD student conference and by way of introduction I say something that I only thought of that afternoon.

Which is that as an SF writer I sometimes get asked to speak at events like this, relating SF to the actual practice of a discipline, and that it's just occurred to me that in every case SF owes that field an apology for getting it wrong. Take surveillance studies, for instance: we gave them Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is all about real-time surveillance rather than the accumulation and storage of records. This has people worked up about surveillance cameras and quite blasé about Google (etc) tracking their every move.

Or take genomics, an area in which I've been quite involved, and the technologies associated with it: genetic engineering and genetic medicine. The SF template for these has been provided by Brave New World and Frankenstein. What these works have spawned, regardless of the intent of their creators, is a great lumbering monster of reactionary anxieties.

And robotics, computer science, and AI? Yup, we did it again, from Čapek onwards (not to mention Mary Shelley's creature). And even when Eano Binder and Isaac Asimov had taken a hammer to the Revolt of the Robots cliché, almost all SF about robots and AI has dealt not with likely consequences but about, well, us: distinctively human-centred themes of labour, slavery, consciousness, identity; and the anxieties provoked when we see, or imagine, these replicated in a machine.

And then I went on to give my talk about how SF has dealt with these.

What I wonder, though, thinking about this, is whether there's any area of human endeavour or inquiry which has featured largely in SF, and that SF has handled in a way that hasn't been an utterly cringe-making travesty of what it's actually about.

Suggestions welcome.

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On the other hand, we also gave them nuclear power, the sliding doors on the bridge of the Enterprise, and various things from Minority Report.

That's making the assumption that SF is an entirely predictive medium. It's not, it deals in possibilities, in the same way that non SF fiction deals with contemporary possibilities rather than concrete realities.

Arthur Clarke and geostationary orbits is the tech example that always comes up. But if you look closely you see that he published the idea, which he wasn't the first to have, in a letter to a radio/electronics magazine, not an SF magazine.

What American SF correctly predicted was that there would be a large group of people in America who thought that they were self-reliant and that they knew science and could do things like build their own non-governmental rocket ships if they wanted to. It didn't quite predict that these people would generally be incompetents who would use their Dunning-Kruger syndrome as a reason to deny real science whose political implications seemed to conflict with their worldview. But maybe that partially counts anyways.

I'm not thinking about tech predictions, which we often get right, but about the way an SF trope can frame a field in a way that has nothing to do with what those in that field see as its real concerns. And usually in a way that relates to pre-scientific concerns, indeed to religious myths (which themselves of course reflect real concerns). Even when the concerns are modern, they're much more about other anxieties than they ones the story is ostensibly about. Is it even possible to write about ETs without writing about the human 'other'? (This can be done consciously and well, as in District 9 or The War of the Worlds for that matter.)

Well, "A Logic Named Joe", by Leinster, got the internet just about right, even down to keeping the kiddies from seeing porn!

I feel you're doing a bit of what Cory Doctorow did the other day on Radio 4's Today programme (listen again), and the opposite of what Kevin Warwick was doing (he was the designated "gosh science fiction has got the present so right!" guest).

Science fiction predicts almost everything, so there's always plenty of material for both sides to use as evidence that SF almost never/quite impressively often gets the future right.

If you're talking about the framing of a discussion, as opposed to specific tech predictions, science fiction should get credit for the long-term view of environmental degradation and overpopulation concerns. True, society isn't discussing these issues with the seriousness called for by John Brunner and Isaac Asimov, but that's society's fault, not SF's.

New Wave writers, especially Norman Spinrad, framed the issue of mass media in a way that still informs the dialogue.

SF does a pretty good job with the theme that new technologies are disruptive to existing institutions and the social order --- sometimes in a good way, sometimes not --- and that many of the most important of these effects are are unintended consequences.

Well, proper SF does, anyway. Most pop culture SF, by which I mainly mean movies, screws this one up pretty severely, either imagining that technology doesn't change much fundamental, or that its effects are very straightforward.


Sex, media, teh internet ... I think we're seeing a pattern emerging here. A New Wave pattern? (2 out of 3.)

Keep 'em coming!

A nice coincidence that this was posted at this time as I was just having a discussion about I, Robot on another forum. The discussion involved basically what is mentioned here except that we were talking about The Outer Limits tv show adaptation in which Leonard Nimoy was a guest actor.@Grif: I have been trying for years to remember the working title and author of A Logic Named Joe,,I recall reading it in a short story collection many years ago and had the same thoughts about it,thx for solving that for me!

Orwell may have gotten surveillance wrong, but Delany understood (in "Triton") that it would become acceptable if sold to the populace as vanity reality television.

And Brunner got the idea of hacking down pretty well in "Shockwave Rider". Maybe SF is better at predicting crime and antisocial behavior than technology.

SF tends to the satirical, so it's also going to tend to sneer and go 'this is shit'. There's not much of a story if we build a class of robots to do the manual labour, all the humans go fishing, the end. Although as I type that, I thought 'of course there is the Culture'.

So SF tends to right about the sneery shit stuff. War has become more pushbutton and about TV ratings. Politicians are telegenic and rarely anything else. Scientists are ignored in favour of bread and circuses. In the absence of the sacred / cold light of reality religion is almost a cartoon of itself (an ex-Hitler Youth, kiddie-fiddling covering upping guy who looks like Palpatine ... why Catholics, with this Pope you are spoiling us).

I think the SF story that is more true now than ever is the one where the massive companies run the place, the middle class live in domes, there's a tiny megarich elite in charge of the computers, money and soma and so therefore everything else, with all the work is done by starving peasants, out of sight ... and that's normal. SF just assumed that would be one city, not the entire planet. Blade Runner, say, is 'more true' now than it was then. Although ironically, I think do Androids looks a little old fashioned.

And I think, as Adam Curtis pointed out this week, that the place SF scored was the self-fulfilling prophecy - SF geeks have become the heroic geeks of SF, at least in our own minds. We all see ourselves as Winston Smiths raging against the cameras. Presumably because we forgot the end of the book.

"Sex, media, teh internet ... I think we're seeing a pattern emerging here. A New Wave pattern?"

Not to step on this one bit of SF triumph ... OK, to step on it ... are we really going to give New Wave credit for The Sixties? I think that people were discovering sex just fine for themselves, and what the New Wave got to do was to import it into SF. And with the media, I would be surprised to hear that Spinrad et al were really more influential than Baudrillard et al. If SF didn't handle these in a way that was "a cringe-making travesty of what [they] were actually about", it's because SF was responding to what was actually happening around it.

I'd guess that environmental degradation, Allen Varney's suggestion, is going to be the next area where SF will in hindsight have been seen to have travestied the real problem. SF is fond of Earth-shattering disasters, and leaves people poorly prepared for something like global warming or habitat destruction, where the damage is slow, incremental, and where people can always say "Hey, the world hasn't turned into a Mad Max set, so it must not be happening."

Powered flight? I'm thinking of the SF from the late 19th century, Jules Verne and George Griffith

oops, commented before reading the commment that technical predictions don't count. Move along, nothing to see here...


You write:

Take surveillance studies, for instance: we gave them Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is all about real-time surveillance rather than the accumulation and storage of records. This has people worked up about surveillance cameras and quite blasé about Google (etc) tracking their every move.

Is it really fair to imply that 1984 got it wrong? After all when Orwell wrote it computers really were in their infancy. In addition a lot of what The Party did in that book is easily extrapolated into modern society - including the sorts of information gathering that is described in the book. The big obvious difference is that it's not the state but private companies that are doing the damage. Again I don't think that Orwell can be blamed but, had he survived this long I can imagine him raging at the state we're in.

[pun intended]

Also the public can't be blamed for this blasé attitude. Many people think that surveillance cameras are a good idea for a start. And then there's the older generation (older than me) that seem to think that computers are a magic box. That problem with these people is education not the precognitive abilities of an author.

Personally I think 1984 is still the most eerily prescient book I've ever read.

I don't think that there's any human endeavour that's popular in SF that hasn't been handled ham-fistedly but (controversial point ahead) I think that's down to writing. Quite a few SF authors think more about the idea than how they put it across - or how to explain it. Thankfully you're not one of those. And also quite often SF is about entertainment - and there's nothing wrong with that, after all story telling is one of the prime reasons for literature.

Generally I don't like the idea that SF is about predicting the future because, frankly, I don't see much of scientific inquiry in most science fiction.

we gave them Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is all about real-time surveillance rather than the accumulation and storage of records.

Is it really, though? Winston Smith works in the Records Department, after all. The whole argument is about controlling the future by controlling the past - by having the power to change accumulated records. And it's implied that this is a source of control in other ways; how does the Party know that Smith is terrified of rats? Because it's read his diary, and it's been watching him.

I think another thing that SF got wrong is the idea of growing corporate power. Corporations nowadays just don't have that sort of power - and they've got far less power today than they had in the glory days of the 1950s, when BP and United Fruit were happily toppling governments and waging war, or the 1850s, when about an eighth of the world's land area and population were under the rule of corporations rather than governments.

Perhaps I'm misreading your point, but it doesn't seem entirely fair to hold sf to account for not framing scientific fields the way those scientists frame their own discipline. After all, that's not the point of sf: it's to explore how technologies affect society and people, and really, the "great lumbering monster of reactionary anxieties" technological change provokes is pretty central to that relation. Likewise, I don't see the shame-facedness about realtime surveillance versus recordings in 1984, because what he was writing about was the social effects of a surveillance state. (One could argue how right he got that though as well.)

Ajay - I think the great weight of Orwell's emphasis is on the falsification of records (newspapers etc) rather than systematic tracking and keeping real records.

antihippy - I don't see 1984 as eerily prescient at all, but rather as a very effective satire against socialism.

And even there ...

Here, from a post I did on rec.arts.sf.written, and have just recovered from a 1999 post on alt.politics.socialism.trotsky, is my critique of

Orwell overestimates the planned economy and underestimates the proles.

He assumes that the economy can go on indefinitely delivering
depression-level living-standards to the proles (beer, cigarettes,
gambling, porn, films, trashy novels, cinema, an inadequate but
acceptable diet, aluminium saucepans etc) and that the proles will go on
accepting all this indefinitely. All of this seems unlikely - at a
minimum, the breakdowns of the economy (shortages, admitted in the book)
will shift living-standards and work-processes unpredictably and

No industrial economy can function without intelligence and initiative
on the part of the industrial workers. At the very least they will have
to bodge, assist managers in covering up plan non-fulfilments, cope with
shortages of *production* goods, and so on. (All quite independently of
the thought-control in the Party itself.) The proles (and their
immediate supervisors) will *have* to know that 2 and 2 make 4.

This soon leads to a situation where O'Brien et al are hanging by their
heels from lamp-posts (or to reforms to avert that '1956' scenario,
which only buys time for the Party until '1981' or '1989'.)

Orwell also underestimates the colonial slaves.

Assume as true (and not just more Party propaganda) the picture of three
essentially identical competing blocs, with a vast, various 'Fourth
World' disputed between them. The armies of Oceania, Eurasia and
Eastasia sweep back and forth across this 'Fourth World' like natural
disasters. The inhabitants' ideological allegiance is neither asked nor
given, but we can assume some passing familiarity on their part with the
slogans of Ingsoc, Neobolshevism and Selflessness. (All essentially
identical, but each denouncing the others as absurd.) Past ideologies,
particularly religion, would persist. And out of all this, no Ho Chi
Minh, no Robert Mugabe, no Jonas Savimbi, no Bin Laden emerges? Not
bloody likely.


Orwell underestimates natural science, and engineering (and soldiering,
come to that).

Sheer accident would be enough to give one or other bloc a scientific-
technical (hence military) lead at some point, thus de-stabilising the
system by military breakthroughs unexpected on all sides. And once again
- the Floating Fortresses, the helicopters (helicopters! think of that!)
and so on require *constant* maintenance by men and women who know that
2 and 2 add up to 4. At a minimum this implies a very large number of
people who are impervious to 'reality-control' even if they acquiesce in
the Party's *political* shifts. 'Oceania has always been at war with
Eurasia' but when it's suddenly 'always been at war with Eastasia' you
have turn a lot of guns around, replot a lot of bomber flights, change a
lot of plans. (And there is a selection pressure for people who *don't*
discard and forget the old plans, but keep them for next time ...)

The bottom line is that Orwell (in this book, not in all his very
diverse output) projects the characteristics of the social strata with
which he was most familiar - the literary intelligentsia and the lumpen-
proletariat (the down-and-outs, casual labourers and dossers) - onto the
other strata of (in this case) post-capitalist society. As the literary
intelligentsia and the lumpen-proletariat are notoriously fickle,
feckless, and easily bribed, Orwell's conclusions are unduly
pessimistic. The industrial workers, colonial peasants,
scientific/technical intelligentsia, soldiers, and industrial managers
are more obdurate in their requirements, and in the long run - over
decades, not centuries - push post-capitalist society away from

I know of one satirical utopia that proved to be uncannily accurate. It's quite an amusing book. It assumes that all the theories of the political economists of the time are absolutely correct, and examines what a society working on those principles would actually be like. It shows that, while staying true to exactly the principles of freedom prescribed, such a society must also necessarily be based on the grossest and vilest tyranny behind closed doors – the doors marked 'No admittance except on business'. The book is Capital by Karl Marx. Does that count?

Well, it's a nice try!

I'd put it the other way round: that science fiction very often uses (however crudely) the methods of historical materialism, and that it's quite possible that the spread of Marxist ideas and the rise of SF (around the late 19th and early 20th centuries) were connected in ways that remain to be investigated.

SF is not prophetic (with slight reservation left in as tribute to Christopher Hitchens,) rather the future is reverse engineered from SF or fiction in general. The zeitgeist, in real time, creates the truth or reality not the other way around. Our genetic imperative is to adapt our environment to our desire, not adapt to our environment. Our hubris leads us to manipulate our environment, and then adapt our genome to the "new and improved" environment, 2+2=5. I think most SF writers just over-estimate the pace of the social drift, as Ken has said here before, there’s a sort of wish fulfillment when fields discuss potential over real world achievements.

I read Nineteen-Eighty Four in the 70’s, I thought he got the surveillance society dead to rights, people weren’t under actual 24-7 observation, it was a intended perception, true paranoia at its finest. “Think of what you save when you buy a ticket,” without the added fingerman there is no crime. When O'Brien reveals the conspiracy it is one last insult, you get the speech on your deathbed and only if you are a party member. Writers may follow this meme but reality is more like, ‘all the Indians died of mysterious diseases but the funny thing is their bones show signs of lead poisoning, never mind the blankets.’

'I am the radical reality, all others are rooted in me’-Spinoza

"thus de-stabilising the
system by military breakthroughs unexpected on all sides"

I've never thought the war in Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually being fought, I've always assumed the whole thing was propaganda.

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